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At 80 years old, Rita Lucey defies centuries of doctrine and dogma by becoming a Catholic priest



Rebel is not a word that leaps to mind when you first meet Rita Lucey. Nor do the words radical or revolutionary or agitator. Not even troublemaker.

In fact, when she comes to the door of her Belle Isle home to welcome a reporter in to talk, the words that do come to mind to describe the 80-year-old with wispy gray hair and vibrant eyes so warm they make you smile despite yourself are ones you might use to describe your favorite aunt or a kindly neighbor. Bubbly. Charming. Warm. It's not at all surprising to learn that she's been married to her husband for more than 60 years and that she's got four children of her own, as well as nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

But then you get her talking about the prison system or the death penalty or Florida's current governor and the firebrand in her comes out.

"My priestly term for our governor is 'that asshole Rick Scott,'" she says with a laugh as she shoos one of her two Persian cats from a chair in the living room. Her voice sharpens when she talks about her efforts to draw attention to the abuses in the state's prison system – 346 prisoners died in Florida prisons in 2014, a record high for Florida – and that's when facts and figures about the death penalty, war and the Scott administration pour from her mouth in a stream.

She also fires up when you get her started on her feelings about the Roman Catholic Church. Lucey, a product of Catholic school, spent most of her life trying to be a good Catholic, she says. When she was a child, she even considered becoming a nun, although she'd really wanted to be a priest – an option forbidden to her by the church because she was a girl. "I felt the calling since childhood, and I was very disappointed that I could not become a priest," she says. She ended up getting married, doing her best to serve the world as a good Catholic and teaching Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes to kids.

"But when I was somewhere in my 40s, I just couldn't do it anymore," she says. "The emphasis was always on women's sexuality. That is to say, on abortion and on contraception, the fact that we could not practice contraception. There was nothing about death penalties or wars. It was all related to this whole subject of abortion. I could not deal with the dogma and the doctrine anymore. This was not what Jesus was about."

So Lucey decided to become a Quaker. The fact that the Quakers are focused on peace and that they ask their followers "to see the God in everyone" appealed to her. She became an activist and joined Amnesty International. She became an active participant in protesting the School of the Americas, a controversial training facility located in Georgia and run by the U.S. government that provides training for U.S.-allied Latin American military (the school is known to be the training ground for numerous brutal dictators). In 1998, at the age of 63, she was one of 25 School of the Americas protesters (including several Catholic priests and nuns) arrested, fined and jailed for six months in federal prison for repeatedly "trespassing" on the school's grounds.

Despite her activist work, she says she could never shake the feeling that the universe had some other plan in store for her. She continued to be drawn to the religion she had lived and loved, and she says she felt she needed to act on that – she just wasn't sure how.

"The universe was telling me to do something about this Catholicism that I loved," she says. "And a little more study showed me that this is what happened to Jesus. He was a product of his culture, and he saw the injustices. So he became a troublemaker, or a willful disturber."

Lucey, who recently took the controversial step of becoming ordained a Catholic priest in a ceremony that took place at Christ Church Unity in Orlando on Jan. 17, says she's figured out that calling, and she's now following Jesus' example. The Catholic church shuns the very notion of women as priests – it's written into the church's canonical law that only baptized men may become priests. Lucey thinks the rule is not only unfair, but also unjust and antithetical to what the church should be teaching.

"The Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in the world, and it is the only one that does not give equality to women," Lucey says. "They have a law called canon 1024 that says only baptized males can become priests and that dates back to the Middle Ages, probably the 1500s. This is ridiculous and an injustice, and injustices have to be addressed. That's what I am all about. I have a right to be a priest as much as any man, because God created us equal. Men and women are equal in the sight of God."

Rita Lucey may be a rebel and she may be a revolutionary, an agitator, maybe even (in the eyes of some), a troublemaker. What she is not, she says, is a heretic.

The notion that women should not be ordained as priests does not originate with Jesus Christ, she says, although those opposed to it often argue that the tradition of priesthood began with the 12 apostles, all of whom were male.

"Christ didn't ordain anyone," says Lucey, who holds a master's degree in pastoral studies from Loyola University. "Women were considered second class in the Jewish culture of that time, and yet Jesus had all of these women around him – Mary, Martha, Mary of Magdala – they supported him spiritually, physically, financially. They cooked for him and took care of him. The apostles ran away when Jesus was crucified, but five of his women followers stayed, and they were the first ones to witness his resurrection."

To Lucey, and to the other women who question the patriarchal domination of the modern Catholic church, those women were the first female priests. Yet sometime in the Middle Ages, she says, the Catholic church pronounced the vocation off-limits to women. For centuries, despite requests for the Vatican to reconsider the topic, it remained a boys-only club.

"I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful," Pope John Paul II declared in 1994, when the topic was brought before him. He and others referred back to early teachings that indicated that, although women were always an important part of the Christian church and could prophesy and pray, they could not teach, nor should they publicly question the all-male clergy.

In 2002, seven women decided subordination was not for them, and they finally had what they needed to officially become bona fide priests: an independent Catholic bishop, Father Rómulo Antonio Braschi, who was willing to make it official. They took a ship out on the River Danube, where he ordained them; a year later, the Catholic church demanded that they repent for violating church law. When they refused, they were excommunicated. Over the years, some of the women – and some male bishops who've helped ordain them – have been accused of heresy and excommunicated. That's something Lucey and the approximately 200 other women priests worldwide say they aren't afraid of.

"Excommunication will not hurt me one bit," Lucey says. Although she won't be recognized as a Catholic in most churches, the churches that support women in the priesthood will open their doors to her. She points out that the Roman Catholic church has gone out of its way to excommunicate devout women like herself, but it protects male priests who've been accused of molesting children. "We don't excommunicate the pedophiles, you may notice," she says with a smile. "So I'm not afraid of excommunication."

Perhaps one of the reasons that the church is so opposed to the ordination of women is because once you question that one tenet of the religion, it opens up the door to the questioning of many more beliefs, canons and doctrines that have been accepted at face value for thousands of years.

For instance, the idea that "God" has to be a replica of a man, even though God is not even a human being.

"We celebrate inclusive liturgies, which means we include feminine as well as masculine images of God," says Janice Sevre-Dusczynska, one of the 160 women priests practicing in the United States and the media representative for the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, through which Lucey was ordained. "If we're only going to be seeing, as young women and older women, only male pictures, a male image of God, or using male pronouns, we are hurting the souls, the psyches of young girls, and we're empowering men too much, giving too much privilege to males. We're not creating a balance, and imbalance causes sin. We need women at this table."

Likewise the idea that family planning and contraception are taboo comes into question with these women of faith.

"If women had family planning and education and good access to contraception, you'd save a lot of lives, and the church would suddenly become a lot more pro-life," says Bishop Mary Meehan, one of the first women ordained as a priest in the United States. In her biography on the website for the ARCWP, Sheehan is described as a maverick who's helping lead the "holy shakeup" that's rocking the Catholic church's foundation. "Don't tell me that one of the best ways to lower the abortion rate isn't contraception. If you want to lower the abortion rate, use contraception, use family-planning methods. That makes sense to most people, except the celibate male Catholic hierarchy."

And then there's the notion of inclusion in general – one of the reasons people have lost connection with the Catholic church is because it is so exclusionary. Women priests think that needs to change if the church is to survive, much less grow.

"As one of our theologians has said, this isn't just adding women and stirring," Meehan says. "This is a new priesthood in a reformed church, where everybody is welcome: gays, lesbians, transgender individuals, the divorced, former Catholics and so forth. Everyone."

Lucey and Meehan both point out that the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate recently estimated that there are now 32 million "lapsed" Catholics – those who were once Catholics but have stopped participating – in the United States, and the number of practicing priests has been steadily dropping since 1990. The entire population of Catholics in the country is only about 76 million, according to the same organization. Clearly, they both say, this indicates that something needs to change if the church is going to remain vital. Lucey says she has high hopes that the current pope – Pope Francis, one of the most progressive popes the Catholic church has ever seen – will help lead reform efforts that will change things for the better. He has already stated publicly that even though the church still bans birth control, people should not feel they have to "breed like rabbits" to be good Catholics. And he's indicated that he feels the church should welcome gay parishioners, rather than shun them.

For now, he's still standing firm on the teaching that women should not be ordained as priests – but Lucey, Meehan, Sevre-Duczynska and others have faith that he may soften in his stance and someday welcome women to the priesthood.

"We women now number over 200 in four different continents," Lucey says. "We're in Canada, South America, Africa, and we are planting seeds everywhere. Now, in order to grow, the seeds have to be watered. I'm hoping this pope, whom I admire very much, will be out there with his watering can. He is a reasonable man, well-versed in the Scripture. How long can he deny us women ordination?"

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